Honda Z600


A car for 5p?

My first car cost 5p.

It was a 1974 Honda Z600 coupe, which should have been a vibrant orange – the only colour offered – but had been re-sprayed a horrid matt yellow.

My dad lived on a River Thames houseboat and the Z, which belonged to a neighbour, had been flooded up to its door handles in river water. My pa bought it, dried it out, using a hairdryer and old newspapers on the vinyl seats.

He subsequently battled with galloping rust. When I took it over, aged 19 (hence the 5p ‘charge’), I became familiar with plastic filler and rust inhibitor, and my dad drew a cartoon of the car looking the worse for wear.

The Z600 had a free-revving, all alloy, air-cooled twin 599cc engine, mated to a four-speed, synchromesh-free transmission. Smaller than an old school Mini, its TV screen-shaped back window acted as a tailgate, it had a rev counter; tombstone seats and a swivelling map light in the roof console. I was 19 and loved blatting about in this tiny car, which was far faster than it ought to have been.

I was also very poor and stuck with a battery that was sick, so the Z wouldn’t always fire up. I once persuaded a motorcycle policeman to help me push start it, and remember his big red face, under his crash hat, framed by the back window.

I collected a Ford Transit as a bonnet ornament. All the Z’s front panels bolted on, so I retrieved secondhand bonnet, bumper and wings from a dead Z rotting in a farmyard and attached them. The car now looked like a yellow dwarf with an orange party nose.

Oddly, the police kept stopping me. “Are you carrying drugs sir?” asked one rozzer.

When the engine began making terminal knocking noises I spent £50 on another Z600 that had been rear-ended and swapped motors. The car was front driven and the engine and gearbox sat on a subframe. Once the ancillaries were detached, some friends and I lifted up each car like a pair of big wheelbarrows and dropped my Z over the top of the battered one’s running gear. Eventually a mystery charging fault and advancing tin worm killed my little Honda, and I sold it to a man with a Berkeley sportscar who wanted to use the engine.

This wasn’t the last Z I owned. In the mid-1990s I foolishly bought a rotted out example, then found another with a busted drive shaft that had sat in a garage for a decade. It cost about £300 and a collection of 1960s ‘cars of today’ cigarette cards.

Bits from the rotten car and some serious welding brought the moribund Z back to life, and once MOT’d my dad and I drove it on a 500 -odd mile trip around France for a story in Top Gear magazine about French microcars.

I’d still have that car now, but it was stored in a barn that was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. All that remained of my little Honda was a twisted lump of molten metal.